Tucked away on the third floor of a big converted house on Grand Avenue in St. Paul, Saran Cryer’s office feels quiet, calm and safe. That’s just the feeling that Cryer, mental health therapist at Women’s Advocates, the nation’s oldest battered women’s shelter, hopes to give her clients — women seeking temporary shelter from domestic violence.
While much of the work of the shelter’s staff focuses on helping residents get back on their feet and find permanent housing, child care and employment, Cryer’s job is to focus on the women’s mental health.
“Being in an abusive relationship is wearing on the heart and the soul,” she said. “I try to help them realize their inner strength, and mentally prepare for the work that lies ahead of them when they leave here.”
In the past, women’s shelters were simply focused on providing shelter for women escaping domestic violence; today’s shelters, like the 40-year-old Women’s Advocates, focus on providing more comprehensive services aimed at stopping the generational cycle of domestic violence. This week, Cryer, who until joining Women’s Advocates worked as a family case manager at Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, told me about her philosophy of care, the therapeutic process and her hopes for her clients.
MinnPost: Tell me about your work at the shelter.
Saran Cryer: What I do here is I focus on the mental health of the residents at Women’s Advocates. Our residents are women and their children who have been battered by their domestic partners in some sort of way. They come here looking for safety for them and their children. One of the first things they do when they come here is to meet with me. I provide a safe, calm environment for them where they can share their personal experiences and detail their trauma in a nonjudgmental atmosphere. I offer no judgment because I want them to feel comfortable coming in and talking about their experiences. These are women who have been through all variety of trauma. I provide a listening ear and guidance toward healing.
MP: What are some of the methods you use for sorting through residents’ trauma?
SC: For every resident, I create something called a genogram. Many therapists use genograms to help their clients better understand family relationships and behavioral patterns. I use this tool to create a visual record of a resident’s family history going back three generations. I try to track trauma and other types of dysfunctional family relationships, including chemical dependency and domestic violence. Most of the time, a pattern clearly emerges.
If your grandfather was abusive to your grandmother, I would put that information in your genogram. If your sister and your aunt were also in abusive relationships, that would be included. Then you could see a visual link between the generations, and we could begin a conversation about those links and where they came from. In my practice, I’ve found that a genogram is a helpful visual representation of a person’s history — a family tree with a lot of extra detail.
MP: Do residents find these visual representations of their family histories helpful?
SC: I like to expand genograms beyond abuse to other health concerns like diabetes, heart disease and other relationship issues. There’s always a pattern. In our sessions, we look at the chart and carefully and talk about what we see. There’s always an a-ha moment. It could even be something as simple as favoritism, like, “My mom always favored my brother over me. And I’m doing the same thing with my son, but I wasn’t aware of it until I’ve seen it here.” Realizations like these help us look at patterns we have always taken for granted and then devise ways we can change our behavior to improve our quality of life.
MP: How often do you meet with women during their stay at Women’s Advocates?
SC: I like to meet with the residents as soon as possible when they get here, because most are here for only a short period of time. I usually meet privately once or twice with a resident during her stay here. And I hold group therapy sessions, which the women are required to attend at least once a week.
The advocates on staff are helpful with important, practical aspects of helping the residents get back on their feet, finding stable housing, employment and childcare for the children. What I do is work on the emotional side of things. I help the women to move from the victim seat to the empowerment seat, and that process takes time and hard work.
MP: What mental health issues are most common among women who’ve been in abusive relationships?
SC: Depression is a very common diagnosis. So is anxiety and bipolar disorder.
The women who come here are at a low point in their lives. Many don’t know where they are going to go from here. It’s scary. Still, they are happy to be here because this feels like a safe and caring place for them and their children. They are happy to be away from their abuser, but it’s still sad to pack up your children and leave your home. They feel the shame. They feel hurt. But the well-being of their children is the most important thing of all.
MP: What drew you to this type of work?
SC: I have always felt my purpose in life is to serve others. There is a quote by Marian Wright Edelman, that I think fits my life philosophy: “Service is the rent we pay for being. It is the very purpose of life, and not something you do in your spare time.” Even when I was a little girl I always had this desire to help others.
I grew up in the Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul. In Rondo, I always felt a sense of belonging and protection from my school community, the faith community, the recreation centers and my family. People who lived in the neighborhood cared about children and creating a safe community. I want to create that same kind of community and sense of security for the women and children I work with here.
MP: What skills do you hope residents gain from their time at Women’s Advocates?
SC: I want residents to leave here seeing that tomorrow is a new day. Whatever happened yesterday, tomorrow is always there, and they can say, “In this new day I will reflect my greatness. I will be the best that I can be. I will take responsibility for my own life and the lives of my children and we will do better going forward.”